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Only Satan, who acts in opposition to God, has those traits, and as a result, he gets the best speeches — as when he declares, after he is hurled into hell, that “All is not lost; the unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield.”That is why, to Shelley, “Milton’s Devil as a moral being is . This could be possible only if the author was not actually the master of his own intentions.Perhaps Milton was ensnared by the false piety of his own time, and it took the antinomian insight of the Romantics to liberate him — to make him the poet of revolt that he secretly wanted to be all the time.For readers like her, who had always “walked into books boldly, without knocking or bothering too much about the owner,” the death of the author came neither as a great surprise nor as a cause for much mourning.
The results of my grim-faced, slash-and-burn treks through the “polysemy” of canonical texts were infinitely duller and cruder than any of my naïve high school efforts to figure out what authors actually meant.
Eventually, I slunk back, tail between my legs, to the ranks of Humble Consumers.
Zadie Smith notes that her doubts about the readerly freedoms bestowed by poststructuralist theory set in around the time she became a novelist.
(She discovered that she did believe in writing as “an expression of an individual consciousness” after all.) For me, the disenchantment had more to do with the slow-dawning realization that I was not a very good or clever poststructuralist reader.
Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books.
This week, Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch debate whether an author’s intended meanings matter more than a reader’s interpretations.Those works were not, as my teachers had led me to believe, stable, determinate entities, encrypted with their authors’ intentions.They were boundless “texts,” to which no fixed or final meaning could be assigned.My job, henceforth, was to produce my own meanings from the endless and irreducible play of signifiers that was literature.All of which made me want to lie down in a darkened room and cry.I was from the Humble Consumer school of reading, and having just embarked on three years of studying English literature, it was a blow to be told that all my most cherished notions about that enterprise were bourgeois delusions.The countless hours I had spent in high school dutifully disinterring the truth and beauty of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and parsing Shakespeare’s attitudes to romantic love in “Antony and Cleopatra” had been for nought, it seemed.Whatever embarrassment attached to re-embracing the old bourgeois delusions was far outweighed by relief.Sometimes, I learned, it really is better to receive than to the author of three novels: “Everything You Know”; “Notes on a Scandal,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “The Believers.” She has written feature articles and criticism for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.For those who persisted in believing that authors were actual people — people who had used language to express specific ideas and sentiments and ways of looking at the world — the task of finding something sensible and halfway informed to write each week was quite arduous.(It required, for example, some minimal awareness of the historical circumstances in which writers had produced their works.) But for those who professed that there was no such thing as literary originality, that it was language that spoke through the author, not the other way around, that reading was not an act of exegesis but a kind of creative, semi-erotic play — essay-writing got considerably easier and faster.